How did a small town in Tennessee become home to such a moving monument? The story is so touching and fascinating that it is almost unbelievable. It is a tale of a group of school children who found out that even the smallest idea can spark a world wide movement, and how compassion can change the world.
Just outside of Chattanooga, teachers at the Whitwell Middle School noticed that students couldn't fully grasp the enormity of the number six million when discussing the Jewish victims of the holocaust.
So the students came up with an idea. After learning about the mandatory stars that Jews were required to wear on their clothing, and how some people showed solidarity with the Jewish people's plight by wearing paper clips, they set out to collect six million paper clips as a visual aid. Recently we had the chance to see the result of the children's efforts.
At first glance, the school looked typical, until we spotted the World War II era German boxcar in front. The train car, which was actually used to carry prisoners to concentration camps, has become home to the millions of collected clips. Once we climbed aboard we discovered just how many millions.
In the early days of the project, the students brought paper clips from home or asked family and friends to contribute, then the idea began to spread. They set up a web page asking for help, and for people to share their thoughts and feelings about the Holocaust. A few weeks later the first letter arrived, then more, and by the end of that school year the class had 700,000 paper clips.
Within a couple years not only had they reached their goal of six million, they had passed it. Along the way incredible, compelling stories were coming in with the clips from all over the world.
When two reporters from Germany got involved the project made a quantum leap forward. They found the story so compelling that they located a boxcar at a museum in Röbel and raised enough through donations to buy it for the school.
The car is filled with not six million, but eleven million paper clips. One to commemorate each of the Jewish victims, as well as all of the other casualties of the Holocaust. The multitude of clips are held in two large cases on each end of the car. Displayed among the clips are letters and other mementos that have been sent along over the years.
We did our best to absorb the numbers, and realized how successful the memorial was at illustrating the gravity of the horrible events. Imagining each clip as a human life was heartwrenching, and shocking in the reality they brought to light. The weight of the suffering of the people carried to their untimely deaths in this very car was crushing.
The project accomplished much more than the original goals. It took on a life of its own and grew far beyond making a number from history tangible to an imaginative group of young people. That number became real lives.
Lives that we are compelled to look back on, to remember, to never forget.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com